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Author: Donegal Fergus

John Calipari is John Wooden

I have been thinking about this blog post since the end of March, but life has gotten in the way a bit (more on that a little later). Watching John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats dismantle the rest of the field in the NCAA basketball tournament, en-route to his first national championship, I kept listening to all the commentators and analysts pick apart the coaching job he has done since arriving in Lexington, saying things like all he can do is recruit, recruit “one and done’s,” or “he only wins because he has super talent.” Crazy. Stupid. Ill-informed. I think because I’m a coach and a coach at the college level I am more sensitive to these types of criticisms, but what an asinine criticism these people have of Calipari. If you want to pick apart his history with rules violations fine, I understand that. I don’t know enough details to make an informed judgment on that end, but to downgrade his coaching abilities just because he has the best players is ridiculous. Calling him a “collector of talent” is absurd. Somehow getting the best players to come to your program is suddenly a bad thing? Recruiting is the life blood of college athletics, as every university message board and blog detailing all the recruiting battles across the country attests to. What Calipari does is incredibly impressive, selling the advantages of playing in hoops-crazed Kentucky and getting an opportunity to prepare yourself to pursue a professional career. Doesn’t that deserve the praise normally reserved for the likes of Izzo, Williams, Boeheim, and the rest of the college basketball elite? As a college baseball coach, I know the first thing I have to do to get my program on the map is to recruit great players. Calipari does this in impressive fashion.

What I think is even more impressive is what Cal has done with all these 5-star recruits once he has them on campus. Getting elite players to buy in to a team philosophy and play together unselfishly is an incredibly difficult task, as any college coach will tell you. That’s to me where my comparison to John Wooden comes in. Everyone gives John Wooden all the credit in the world for winning consistently and in dominant fashion, but all of it is directed at his practice and game coaching, never for his recruiting. He got the best players every year as well, and once on campus, got them to put aside their egos and play for the name on the front of the jersey. This is exactly what Calipari is doing, and I would argue that he is doing it in an era where this task is infinitely more difficult, given the nature of the fame and acclaim these young men receive for years before ever setting foot on a college campus. Now, before everyone freaks out that I am saying Calipari is as good a coach as Wooden, I’m not. Wooden’s principles and achievements are without equal, but what Calipari is doing is in the same vein. He is convincing the best players in the country to come and play for him, then getting them to play for each other, all the while preparing them for a professional career, exactly what John Wooden did without peer for so many years. Think about it.

All of this recruiting talk has been on the forefront of my mind these past few weeks (again, much of the reason for my blog posting delay) as I have been at a crossroad of sorts in my career. I have enjoyed immensely my time here at SeattleU these past two years, but I have been offered, and have accepted the head coaching job at Lower Columbia College. LCC is the premier junior college program in the Pacific Northwest, and one with unbelievable tradition. It is also where I began my coaching career as an assistant almost fifteen years ago. It also happens to be my wife’s hometown. All of those are great reasons to take the job (along with a VERY family-friendly pay raise) but nevertheless it was an incredibly difficult decision. The staff here at SU is simply THE best to work with in the country, period. Great coaches and great men. I will miss them dearly. I will also of course miss my players, though they may not miss me as much :-). Ultimately, the opportunity was the right one for me and my family at this point in our lives, though and we are excited to embark on it together. SeattleU will be fine, well probably better actually, with whomever they replace me with, and I will be their biggest fan. Thanks for the time.

Building the Brand

I’m gonna go a little off topic here today. Normally I prattle on about some crazy game situation our guys got themselves into, or stat-geek numbers that probably only three people care about, but I feel compelled to share a new tangent this time. As anyone who has read this blog before knows, we are a new program here at SeattleU. This is our third year of existence after a roughly 30 year hiatus. With that comes a huge need for exposure and “selling the brand.” For our coaching and support staff, that means just about everything we do has that goal in mind. Whether we are out recruiting, working a camp, talking to the press, or blogging, we are constantly pushing the SeattleU brand. Getting people to take notice is perhaps the biggest priority we have. We are in a large metropolitan area, and one of only two Division I schools in the city, yet there are still people who are unaware that we are back at Division I or even that we have a baseball program again! We have to change that!

One of the challenges we face in this process is the balancing act we have between honoring and connecting with the past traditions here and the push to raise the profile of the new wave. Our old identity, when we were known as the Chieftains, is loaded with success and and alums chomping at the bit to reconnect. Our new identity, however, is built around a new name, the Redhawks, new conference affiliations and rivals, and a different, off-campus facility. How do we embrace the gems of our past, people like Eddie and Johnny O’Brien, the former two-sport stars at SeattleU who went on to become the first double brother double play combo in the big leagues, while at the same time selling this new name and brand? It’s an interesting and challenging task, but certainly an exciting one. For their part, our alumni base has been incredibly supportive and enthusiastic, donating time, money, and expertise to our myriad of projects, even if they do long a wee bit for the old Chieftain mascot to make a return.

Technology is one of the major ways we are attempting to push the SeattleU brand ahead. We don’t have a huge media or marketing budget (or even a small one to be honest) so we have to get creative with the avenues we reach out to our fans, both current and future. We have certainly jumped into the social media pool, though we are still learning the ropes. Twitter has been big for us. While I have my own personal account – @coachferg – I also co-tweet from our team account – @SU_Baseball – along with our play-by-play announcer Dan Giuliani. Giuliani also has his own personal account – @DanGiuliani – so in essence, we really have 3 accounts from which we can spread the gospel of Redhawk Baseball! Facebook is another outlet we are trying to grow. We have the standard litany of photos and news and what-not on our page, but we are also exploring ways to create even more interaction with our fans, through avenues such as embedded video players live-streaming our games, fan giveaways, and live auctions during broadcasts. Pinterest is yet another road we’re careening down, though I must admit it feels at this point like the steering wheel is disconnected. My wife turned me onto this site (she’s an addict) as well as one of our alums, who happens to be a social media guru. It looks to be a particularly effectual way to give people a sense of what our program stands for and the atmosphere we foster here. It’s also a great way to reach out to moms, who as all coaches know, are the bus drivers of the recruiting process. Pinterest’s current demographics are roughly 80% women, so we know we can reach that particular audience with our message of family, academics, and charity. I can almost guarantee you there will be more Pinterest stories in the future from me, so prepare yourself!

I mentioned our broadcasts, and they are quickly becoming the nexus of our efforts to expand our brand. We have already added a streaming video option to go along with our audio broadcasts, and as I mentioned, we are making those available on our Facebook page as well as our website. In addition we are working on an iPhone app that will allow fans to stream all of our audio broadcasts. All these things combined with a host of new promotional events planned for home games has us on the right track I think to building up the recognition for the SeattleU brand. Be on the look out folks! There’s more coming!

You Cannot Be Serious

Well so much for all those warm and fuzzy feelings from starting the season 3-1 and beating our cross-town rival UW. Sacramento was not kind to us. We packed up and headed south looking for warm sun and wins. We got only the first of our wish list. The sun was a welcome respite but sadly our play did not rise with the temperatures. We lost 9-6, 6-5, and 8-7, with the last coming on a 3-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th on getaway day. Brutal.

What is truly frustrating about the sweep in Sacramento is not that we dropped three winnable games, but the fashion in which we accomplished this ignominious feat. We had 11 more baserunners over the course of the weekend than the Hornets, virtually the same number of hits, and saw an average of 167 pitches per game, all of which added together should equal some wins for crying out loud! That’s almost 19 pitches per inning! Obviously I am screaming from the hitting coach chair, and lest you think I am a myopic clown, wait till you hear the real kicker, which comes from the pitching and defense paradigm. We WON the Freebie War 16-6! Before I expect you all to fall out of your seats with shock and amazement, I guess I should back up and explain just exactly what the Freebie War is.

The Freebie War is one of the ultimate standards in our program here at SeattleU. Donny Harrel, our head coach, preaches this tenet to our kids over and over as a key to wining ballgames consistently. The old adage is that pitching and defense win games, and the two working in unison to minimize opportunities and damage from the opponents’ offense. The Freebie Warn for us is the ultimate symbol of that battle. The formula breaks down this way:

Take Walks, Hit by Pitch, Wild Pitches, Pass Balls, Stolen Bases, Errors, and Balks, then subtract Double Plays turned and Runners Caught Stealing – do this both offensively and defensively. The team with the higher offensive number usually wins. In essence, if you limit the number of “free” bases the other team gets and maximize the number you get, you’re going to win far more often than you lose. Yes, I know it’s not rocket science to put these two ideas together, but it IS a handy metric to evaluate your performance on any given night, beyond just the final score. Control the controllables is something many coaches preach and we believe the Freebie War is a great way to focus on these aspects of the game of baseball.

So now back to the shock and awe of our series at Sacramento State. We actually won the Freebie War in all three games, 6-2, 7-5, and 16-6. How does that happen and you lose all three games? Big plays is the answer. We missed on opportunities to make big plays and didn’t, and the Hornets pounced on them. Two days in a row, we allowed five runs AFTER a missed routine fly ball and an un-turned routine double play. Day three brought the biggest big play of all – a walk-off 3-run home run. Lesson is that you can do so many things right in a game, but if you do not make big plays, or even routine plays in big situations, then you will never reach your potential, either as a player or as a team. We got that revelation pounded into us down in California this past weekend for sure. Where we go from here is what will define us.

3 Down 53 To Go

Opening weekend is in the books for everyone. We had everything you can think of across the country. Rain, snow, sunshine, wind, extra innings, upsets, blowouts, nail-biters – EVERYTHING a college baseball fan could hope for. What a way to kick off the year, and just think – there’s months of this stuff just waiting for you to enjoy!

For us, opening weekend brought rain. Now before all you east coast folks reading this (all 4 of you) start breaking out the Seattle rain jokes (all 4 million of them) bear in mind that it was just a dribble by our standards. We only had one delay and that was just a precaution. We could have played if needed. It did get a little nippy when the wind picked up but our opponents, Utah Valley University, are used to even colder climes so it really turned out to be a non-factor. In fact, UVU’s pitching coach Dave Carter, a friend, went certifiable bad-ass on us all and coached 3rd base without a jacket. Hats off my man, hats off.

As for the games, there was a lot to be hopeful about and encouraged by, but also some major holes in our game that the Wolverines exposed. On day 1 we had what I thought was quite a good day offensively in regards to approach, scoring 8 runs on 14 hits, and that’s taking into account my obvious bias as the hitting coach trying to keep his job. Most teams will take that day, no? To go with that solid day at the plate, our starting pitcher, a senior named Seafth Howe, did what he does and pulled the strings on all his pitches for 8 innings, allowing just 3 hits. He was brilliant. And he’ll do it again. He’s got to be the only starting RHP in all of Division I baseball that doesn’t break 80 MPH (OK, so that’s not entirely true – he smacked an 81 on a FB in the 6th). What he does is befuddle the other side over and over and over. Nothing is straight and nothing is ever the same speed it was the last time you saw it. It’s beautiful.

We skipped Saturday due to some high wind forecasts and enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day on Sunday. Our performance was far from gorgeous though. They day started early, as we bundled up in our rain gear and work clothes to remove the tarp and rake and squeegee. Really glamorous work for I’ll have you know for those that think the Division I lifestyle is like an episode of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. We get our hands dirty at the mid-major level folks! The field prep was not the only challenge we had that morning though. Prior to batting practice, we shared a moment with the family of Cam Christian, our fallen team captain. We circled the mound and huddled with his parents siblings, all of us a family forever now. His sister tearfully spread a few of his ashes as his brother led us in prayer. Tears were not in short supply. Whether that affected us in game 1 is not in doubt, why it affected us in the way it did is a mystery to me. We managed only 4 hits and 2 runs, all while giving up 15. Not the way we wanted to honor Cam’s memory. He may have felt compelled to smack us back into action though in the nightcap, however. Down 4-1 in the 7th inning, and on probably his only good swing of the weekend, Doug Kincaid blasted a grand slam into the Bellevue wetlands to give us a lead, one that we would not relinquish. Cam very well may have given that ball a little more loft. He also aided us in the 9th as UVU was rallying. All the momentum has swung in their favor thanks to some hits and a few errors on our part. Suddenly, the sprinklers sprung into action, causing a 5 minute delay. Utah would not score again. Thanks CC!

As you read this, we have probably already finished our game with intense cross-town rival University of Washington. Split the season series last year, but you can be sure we are gunning for more. If my next blog is rated R you’ll know how the game turned out. See y’all.

Season of Change

It’s been a long strange ride so far in this 2011-2012 season for us here at SeattleU. We’ve had more heartache and sadness than our young men deserve, but through it all they have kept moving forward. Sometimes slow, but always moving forward. We have had joy and excitement as well, and our program is clearly on the rise because of those moments, but there is no doubt that this year will be ring in our minds for the entirety of our lives.

We lost a brother, a son, and a teammate this fall. One of our senior captains and our closer was lost in a car accident . He was 22 years old. When people pass, people inevitably talk about what a wonderful person the deceased was, and how sweet and happy they were to everyone. Sometimes it’s true, or at least a facet of that person’s life, but with Cam it could not have been MORE true. He was a leader without trying. People, especially those younger, were drawn to him, as if by magnetism. Armed with one of those smiles that forces your own mouth to curl in response, Cam went merrily along, charming the pants off just about everyone he encountered. A tireless worker who had just really come into his own after a couple of injuries early in his career, Cam was poised to finally have some of the college success forecasted for him after a standout high school career. To me, though, all of that is far secondary to the simple beauty of the response he inspired in his teammates. After seeing the overflow crowd at Cam’s memorial service (thousands), one of our more talented, but wayward young men said to us that hearing people talk about Cam made him realize that he needed to become a better person. He now wanted to start making a positive impact on other people. He said he couldn’t believe how many people were truly affected for the better by Cam and he knew he wasn’t doing enough himself to make that kind of imprint. Powerful stuff from a 20-year old. That’s the impact Cam’s death had on all of us. We will never forget. *For those that see us play this year, we will be wearing a 21 emblazoned on our hats in his memory*

On the field, our program is at a very interesting point in our trajectory. We are entering year 3 back from a 29-year hiatus, and we finally have some true seniors – kids who have been in our organization for a full career. We have three young men who spent a year red-shirting the first year of creation, and now will be playing for their third season. We also have a crop of juniors who have spent the last two years playing full-time, which gives us a core of experience and hopefully that will pay dividends for us as go through this season. It is exciting to see the growth of this group of players as they adjust to the competitive nature of Division I baseball. The arc of development for young baseball players is fascinating, but unpredictable. I see the poise and confidence in these guys that was not there as strongly the past two years. What that brings is only a guess but I do know that they BELIEVE they are going to be great this year.

As the days count down to first pitch of 2012, coaches and players from every program in the country are bursting with anticipation and nervous energy. Fans are getting primed for the rush ahead as well. Where it will all lead and who will emerge in Omaha is what makes college baseball such a phenomenal spectacle.

10 Games At A Time

The old adage, thrown out there during just about every sports interview ever done, is that teams and players and coaches need to “just take it one game at a time.” That’s junk. Well, maybe not total junk. But it certainly doesn’t give you the whole picture of how your team is playing and how they are progressing as athletes. Especially with 18-21 year old young men there is often a massive amount of uncertainty with regards to how they’re going to play each day. Just when you think a guy has turned it around and is playing like you thought he would, he drops an 0-4, with 3 punchouts. Conversely, just when you start wondering if you’re going to have to recruit a replacement for somebody, he goes out and runs a ball out of the house and makes a diving catch in the outfield. What are you gonna do?

We really like to take a more macro look at how we’re competing, both as a team and as individuals. We use 10 game statistical splits to break down our players’’ trends. We’ve found it gives us a better perspective on who’s really playing well, and who is struggling at the moment. It also highlights areas where our entire team may be deficient, or where we are excelling. Right now, we are grappling with a problem common to a lot of young teams, and not terribly surprising for us, given that we are just in our second year as a program. Whereas early in the year our pitching staff was doing a lot of the heavy lifting and our offense was struggling to get on track, the last 10 games it has almost completely reversed itself. Our offense has begun to pound the baseball like our staff thought they would when we recruited them. Problem is, now our pitching staff has not been able to get hitters out with any regularity. It is especially frustrating because we have seen both areas of our game have such great stretches, and with that the tantalizing possibilities of our future success, but we are seemingly unable to sustain that total team dynamic here we are clicking on all cylinders. But that is our job as coaches – to continue to push these young men to improve themselves and to be accountable for each other. If they can be honest about their own preparation and candidly evaluate what they can do individually to help us win as a unit, then we are going to play better, win more games, and they will be better people for it as well.

How’s The Weather?

Everybody always likes to tease us Northwesterners about our supposed near-constant rain-soaked existence, and to be honest, we do get our fair share, but holy bleeping storm cells! How bad was the weather this past week, even two weeks all across the country? California, the self-proclaimed bastion of sunshine and happiness, got doused with the wet stuff something fierce, while the Northeast looks to be on pace to finally have fields ready to play sometime in early 2014. It’s wet and cold out there people. Our series with San Jose State was ten kinds of messed up…rain forced us to suspend the first night’s game heading into the 8th innings, then not resuming it until Sunday morning. Saturday’s schedule changed more than Kim Kardashian’s boyfriends. It was quite the rollercoaster. In the end we managed to get three of the four scheduled games in, and that was a lot better than some of our brethren ended up with. Stanford and Michigan didn’t even bother trying the forecast was so wretched! I’m wondering if the End of Days is approaching. Mother Nature has got to be trying to tell us something. Maybe she’s saying to buy Field Turf.

Big Step Forward

11 games are now in the book, we are 7-4, and a couple of things have revealed themselves. Our pitching staff has shown some great pitchability. They, as a group, have really stepped out and carried our club through these first 11 games. We were hopeful as a staff that they could keep us in games and allow our offense to carry us over the top, but they have exceeded our expectations, giving us one great outing after another. Senior RHP Max Whieldon has been tremendous, but unlucky as a guy could be, since we have literally scored zero runs for him in either of his starts. Junior RHP Brandon Kizer has really done a terrific job, not allowing a run in his first two starts and just 3 runs in his last start. He is now 3-0. I could go on and on, naming all our pitchers because they have really impressed so far, but I won’t bore the 3 readers I have with all of that. 2.64 ERA as a staff so far. Great job fellas!

The second thing that has given me goose bumps as a coach is our defense. .982 fielding percentage so far as a team. Our infield has been especially stellar, making some outstanding defensive plays, but also just being so efficient at turning those ever-helpful double plays. Some possibly crushing innings have been wiped clean by a well-timed 5-4-3 DP. That is one cliché that is not overused – DP’s really are a pitcher’s best friend.
As the hitting guy here at SU, I have to be honest and also let you know that we have not swung the bats particularly well yet. If I’m going to gush about our club and our good start I have to also be man enough to type that we have been a little disappointing to this point at the plate. We are averaging almost 9 strikeouts a game! We may look to make a little fundraiser out of it and try and sell all that wind energy generated by our whiffs. So while we are swinging and missing entirely too much, and our batting averages are nothing you want up on the scoreboard, we have done enough to this point to get to 7 wins, but more importantly, to give us a glimmer of hope that we are close to breaking out and getting hot with the new BBCORs. We are grinding in the cages, getting our swing mechanics down and having some much better at bats across the board. If we can bring our offensive game even near the level at which we are pitching and playing defense, then we may well continue to be a tough opponent for all those bigger schools out there. I really believe the talent we have on offense is good enough tot do that.

Lastly, with two straight series wins against Notre Dame and Portland, and also a road victory against our cross-town rival Washington in our last 7 games, we are beginning to show that SU is serious about becoming a postseason contender in the near future. Believe me, I’m not putting the cart before the horse and talking like we’re going to make the NCAA tournament this year, just merely giving notice that Seattle U is coming. Knock, knock.

It’s Almost Here

I am writing this blog from the seat of a 747 bound for Burbank. We are stuffed to the gills in this Boeing (shameless Seattle-area company plug) airliner. It seems everyone on board, including Coach Marbut and his Washington State Cougars, is headed south from Seattle seeking sunshine. Turns out though, in a cruel ironic twist, that the weather we seek down in Northridge, CA will not be waiting for us. Severe rain storms predicted for Fri and Sat in the LA area means gods-knows-what our schedule will look like this weekend. We are all anxious to play someone wearing a different uniform, but it appears there may be some serious standing around in our immediate future. It begs the question once again in my mind, why we don’t at least consider (the NCAA that is) pushing the entire college baseball season back a bit. I know we’re all anxious to start playing once the New Year rolls around, and summer baseball is big business, but couldn’t we construct our schedules in a fashion that would allow everyone to play more of their season in fair weather? Especially with the impending reformatting of the postseason and CWS, isn’t now the time to examine a re-calendared (not a real word is it?) college baseball season? If we truly want to spread the excitement of our sport to the masses, why not put our fans in a more comfortable situation weather-wise. Southern schools can attest to the fervor with which their fan bases rally around heading to the ballpark on a bright warm day. Let’s give our northern brethren a chance to create similar ballpark experience for those fans. Southern schools weather only gets better so where’s the downside?

Perhaps I am missing something with my Pacific Northwest goggles on, but I really think a little creative thinking could lead to massive gains in popularity and exposure. Perhaps the devoted followers of CBL can offer their thoughts?

As we plow through the clouds here at 33,000 feet, my mind races through all the tings we are trying to get done with our fledgling program, but as I look around the plane at our young men, I am quickly brought back to the immediacy of our mission – take down the Matadors! The scouting has been done, the rotation has been set, game plan finalized; now we go out and compete. It’s the players’ time now. All their hard work through the summer, fall, and winter crystallizes tomorrow. It’s go time! We are in launch sequence at full thrusters (boy, wouldn’t this NASA metaphor work better if we were headed to Houston?).

The captain has just told me we are beginning our descent and that my electronic devices need to be shut off now – lord knows what might happen if I don’t obey so I will be a good boy and do as I’m told. You can stop reading now. Seriously. Stop reading. Good night.

It’s Not Raining In Seattle

Hello college baseball fans! Thanks for checking in on my first installment here on College Baseball Lineup. I am honored to be a part of CBL’s stable of baseball bloggers. Thanks to those guys for the opportunity to share some thoughts on both our program here at Seattle University, as well as our great game in general. I hope some of you find my ramblings at least mildly interesting. I will do my best to provide some insight into what is happening on the west coast baseball scene, and certainly with our club up here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. I would love to hear from anyone out there with comments, suggestions, and/or questions. You can also follow me on Twitter – @coachferg.

This has been a whirlwind year for me personally and professionally, having joined the staff at SU this past summer, just weeks after the season ended for my previous school, Tacoma Community College. I had spent the last five seasons as the head coach there, but was intrigued by what Donny Harrel was building up the road in Seattle. I had to decide whether or not I wanted to go back to being an assistant coach after running my own program for several years. I also had to make the incredibly difficult decision to leave the players I had recruited and coached. In the end, the chance to work with the coaches here at Seattle U, all of whom I had known for years, and to be involved in laying the foundation of a great Division I program was too much to pass up. My wife has been incredibly supportive through this transition, as we have two very small children and she is having quite a few more nights without me home, as the travel at the Division I level is obviously much greater than at the junior college level. So far I am energized by the new challenge and have thoroughly enjoyed working with this new crop of players. They are full of passion for the game, and they come to the facility every day ready to learn. There is nothing more invigorating for a college baseball coach than young men who are not satisfied with the status quo and who are humble enough to truly accept coaching.

For most of the country, and honestly, even to some in our region, Seattle University, or Seattle U as we are more commonly referred to, is a bit of an unknown entity. Our athletic department, and really the whole school, is engaged in a big marketing push to change that. We are currently in the midst of our NCAA transition from Division II to Division I, and the baseball program is only in year two after a roughly 30 year hiatus. Needless to say we have our challenges as we work to fully phase in our new budgets, get all the teams equipped, get our facilities upgraded and/or built, and find a conference affiliation. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly exciting time around campus and this city. Our alumni base is fired up and filled with pride as they get to watch their alma mater take the diamond once again. It has been so much fun to get to meet the players that built the SU tradition that this new crop of players hopes to take to even greater heights.

As we rapidly approach the first pitch of the 2011 season, it’s hard not to get antsy and lose focus on the daily work that has to be done. Everyone with Redhawks Baseball is chomping at the bit to go out and make a statement but we have to continue to grind right up until we are wheels-up on Alaska Airlines headed to LA to battle Cal St Northridge. I will do my best to help them do that. I will also do my best to give you all out there something to read that won’t make you want to start watching The Real Housewives of Lake Erie. Talk to y’all next week…